The Art of Translating and Forgetting: The Translations of Milan Kundera

Michelle Woods, Trinity College, Dublin
Deborah Garfinkle, University of Texas, Austin

During the course of a literary career informed by censorship and exile, Milan Kundera, the novelist, has created a discourse on translation founded on the notion that translation is inherently an appropriative process that betrays the original author. According to Kundera, in order to satisfy the political or stylistic demands of the target culture, translators deliberately impose ideologically reductive readings on the original. Kundera has described this literary appropriation in terms of physical violation, a penetration of the very integrity of the author's being, a "sodonymization" of the body of his work.

However, prior to his emmigrating to France, Kundera's stance toward the process of translation was not so patently hostile. He began his career in the 1940s as a poet and translator of Russian, Ukrainian and French verse (among others), arguing as late as 1967, that in the Czech cultural context, the translator was a "significant, even dominant, literary personality."

In this paper we will compare Milan Kundera's own early translations with his later views on translation, arguing that his contradictory stance toward the figure of the translator as either cultural savior or scurrilous traitor reflects another form of translation, the translation of Kundera himself. This process has involved the rejection of the ideological role of art and the adoption of his later anti-ideological position; he "betrays" the official lyric of Socialist Realism for the sake of iconoclastic prose. However, Kundera was complicit in writing and translating poetry that enabled the construction a Czech and socialist literary canon. We will show that not only was his own poetry influenced by these translations, but also that his later novels and later attitude towards translation were influenced by a refutation of the intent of these translations and the acculturating process which they represented.